Archive for the ‘Angela Thirkell’ Category

Is it possible that all good literary editors were killed during the war?  Or they abandoned literature for higher aims post 1945?  Or maybe they just all became secret drinkers and spent their afternoons dozing rather than doing their work?

Somewhere there is an answer.  The question comes in the form of a book, or many books: the entire post-war output of Angela Thirkell.  I’ve recently finished rereading County Chronicle, the 1950 entry into her best selling Barsetshire series, and if ever there were a book in need of an editor, this is it.

The story opens where the last one, The Old Bank House, finished.  Lucy Marling and the wealthy industrialist Sam Adams have just become engaged and Lucy is girding herself to break the news to her parents.  Sam Adams has come a long way since he was first introduced in The Headmistress, with his rough edges slightly smoothed thanks to his friend Mrs Belton but, more importantly, with the citizens of Barsetshire considerably mellowed by the passage of time and the upheaval of war.  To marry into an established gentry family like the Marlings would have been unthinkable a few years before.  Now, it is greeted with happiness by one and all.

But that happiness extends for far, far too long.  The first hundred pages of County Chronicle are concerned with Lucy and Mr Adams wedding preparations.  And then the next hundred pages are devoted to parties (none of which is a combined Conservative rally/pig show, so, really just a waste of time) .  It’s only with the last hundred or so pages that Thirkell finally decides to pull a plot together.

And what a lot of plot she needs to gather up by the end!  The main heroine of this volume is introduced early on.  In need of someone to help keep wedding things organized, knowing Lucy will never do it herself, Mrs Marling asks Isabel Dale to come stay with them and help out.  With little money and an awful mother, Isabel is delighted to work for the Marlings after leaving her post at the Hospital Libraries.  She fits in immediately and earns the family’s respect and love both for her excellent work and her exceedingly correct prejudices:

“We all Hate and Despise the Bishop at Allington,” said Miss Dale with surprising energy, “that is when we think of him which is practically never.  My father was at college with him and they used to call him Old Gasbags.”

So delighted was Mr Marling by this intelligence that his wife was quite prepared for him to kiss Miss Dale by way of cementing this common dislike of the Bishop.

Isabel’s fiancé died during the war and there has been no hint of romance since then.  She is able to resist the non-existent charms of Oliver Marling, the son of the house, who toys with the idea of marrying her briefly at the end of the book, feeling “that he might reward her for her sympathy by offering her his hand, his now quite good income and the privilege of hearing him talk about himself forever.”  What she finds more difficult to resist is the quiet, calm appeal of Jeff Palliser, Lord Silverbridge and heir to the Duke of Omnium.

The days of splendour for the Pallisers are long past; the family is getting by but there is no money to spare – and certainly not enough to allow Jeff to stand for parliament, the one thing he would really like to do.  So instead he contents himself by working at a wartime history of the Barsetshires, work which Isabel ably assists him at.  As their feelings grow, Jeff’s sister Lady Cora does her best to encourage her brother but, convinced Isabel still loves her dead fiancé and that he has nothing to offer her, he stays silent.  Thankfully, a surprisingly and conveniently large inheritance – delightfully gossiped over by everyone in Barsetshire – allows these two to find their happy ending.

A happy ending is also found by Mrs Brandon, who finds love with Bishop Joram and so escapes a house now overrun by her horribly selfish son and his delightful but growing family.  Moving towards their happy ending – slowly, painfully, and exceedingly awkwardly – are Charles Belton and Clarissa Graham.  I love both these characters but Thirkell drags their story out over five books, taking what could have been a very nice romance – two good friends falling in love – into something overwrought and not very dear.  But their engagement in this volume leads to one of my favourite bits, when Charles breaks the news to his mother:

“I say, mother,” said Charles.

“Well, darling?” said Mrs Belton.

“You know Clarissa,” said Charles.

Mrs Belton said she did and what a charming creature she was.

“We’re not in love, you know,” said Charles.

Mrs Belton said of course not.

“Some people get engaged right off,” said Charles.  “A friend of mine called Jimmy Butters met a girl at a dance and got engaged.  But I don’t think that was wise.”

Mrs Belton said she quite agreed.

“I had a few words with Clarissa this afternoon,” said Charles in a manner which the words dégagé and insouciant do not at all adequately describe, “and we thought we might make a do of it.  Sometime, I mean, not now,” he added, lest his mother should have visions of a Fleet marriage with a curtain ring.

“I see,” said his mother, artfully assuming an air of considering something deeply.  “One might call it an understanding.”

Charles said with evident relief that that was about it, a sentence which his mother appeared to comprehend perfectly.  He then kicked the side of the bed in a way that made his mother want to kill him, kissed her with absent-minded affection and went out of the room, shutting the door so hard that it came open again, which annoyed his mother so much that she nearly called him back.

That exchange is classic Thirkell.  But it is one of the very few flashes of it in this otherwise quite dreary book.  Thirkell is, as she was wont to do in her post-war novels, playing with far too large a cast and losing track of them in the process.  Her truly funny moments – Oliver Marling’s disgust when the object of his unrequited passion, Jessica Dean, announces her pregnancy; Charles and Clarissa’s dealings with their parents; the Duke of Omnium’s quest for imaginary book titles – get lost among the dreary exchanges between characters we love but have no need to see this time around and some outrageously racist reminiscences from Bishop Joram on his African parishioners.  What a lot of difference a good editor would have made to this book!

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As I’ve said before, one of the great pleasures of reading P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe has been learning Plum’s thoughts on books and other authors.  I’ve shared how he loved Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street and came to a belated but deep enjoyment of the works of Anthony Trollope.

But now we reach the critical stuff: his opinion of my adored Angela Thirkell.  In November 1945, after staying away from her works for years out of a sense of loyalty to his friend Denis Mackail (Thirkell’s younger brother), Wodehouse finally discovered her charms – and even dared to write to Denis in praise of them:

Talking of books, as we so often do when we get together, ought I to be ashamed to confessing to you a furtive fondness for Angela Thirkell?  You told me once that she bullied you when you were a child, and for years I refused austerely to read her.  But recently Wild Strawberries and Pomfret Towers have weakened me.  I do think she’s good, though if we are roasting her I will add that August Folly was rotten and I couldn’t get through it.

He’s clearly wrong about August Folly (who doesn’t love the the awfulness of Richard Tebben?  And the excessive number of Jane Austen allusions?  And a village that puts on Hippolytus as casual recreation?) but I can forgive him that for otherwise seeing the light.

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It is my pleasure to reminder readers that Virago will be reprinting three new Angela Thirkell titles this November.  Time to place your pre-orders or, for those of you with self control, provide your families with a preview Christmas wishlist.  They are all wartime novels and, to my way of thinking, they are some of her best.  They are:

Marling Hall

The Headmistress

Miss Bunting

The Headmistress is probably my very favourite of Thirkell’s books and, having struggled to find a second-hand copy, I am delighted at the prospect of adding it to my library.

That said, I continue to object to Virago’s frankly irritating decision to release additional books in e-editions only, as they are doing with Growing Up and Peace Breaks Out.  While I’d agree the three books they are printing this time around are better than the two being released as e-books, I’d still prefer a complete set.  And I will never feel resigned to Cheerfulness Breaks In, my sentimental favourite of the series, being released as an e-book only.  I’m not sure what, if any, their plans are for future releases –  Thirkell’s post-war works are pretty sloppy – so hopefully they might go back and fill in these few gaps with proper reprints one day.  We can only hope and encourage them!

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As you might recall, Virago will be releasing four Angela Thirkell titles this May: Before Lunch, Cheerfulness Breaks In, Northbridge Rectory, and Growing Up.   The covers for Before Lunch and Northbridge Rectory have now been released and both look lovely.

Irritatingly, Cheerfulness Breaks In and Growing Up are only being released as e-books but I shall still rejoice that they will be more readily available to the reading public now.  Privately, I shall brood and weep over the neglect for two of my favourite books in the series.

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angela thirkellExciting news for Angela Thirkell fans: it looks like Virago is releasing more Thirkell titles next year!  According to the Amazon website, the chosen ones are:

Before Lunch
Cheerfulness Breaks In
Northbridge Rectory
Growing Up
Marling Hall

Admittedly, Before Lunch and Northbridge Rectory are two of my least favourite Thirkells (I abandoned a reread of Northbridge Rectory earlier this summer, fed up by its pedantic preoccupation with slang and poor pronunciation), but the other three are favourites and Thirkell releases are always good news!

These books move us into the war years so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the other wartime books aren’t far behind.  A Virago edition of The Headmistress would make me levitate with happiness.


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Another odd reading year for me, as my reading – and certainly reviewing – continues to take a backseat to the other goings on in my life.  But it was a wonderful year by any measure: I embraced a new and challenging job, travelled to some beautiful countries, explored my own city and its wild surroundings, and, amidst all this, managed to read some very good books.  Here are my ten favourites from 2014:

Top Books 2014 - 3

10. The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (1995)
An inspiring and eclectic collection of garden writing from the 17th Century to the 20th.

9. On the Other Side (1979) – Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
I have had a number of underwhelming encounters with Persephone books this year – but this was not one of them. On the Other Side, a collection of letters Wolff-Mönckeberg wrote for her adult children to explain what it was like to live in Germany during the Second World War, is one of the most thoughtful and important books I have read in a long time.

8. Lucy Carmichael (1951) – Margaret Kennedy
I swore up and down from February to November that I was going to review this but it never quite happened. I have made my peace with that now but still feel it is a shame that I wasn’t able to do justice to this delightful novel about a young woman who, when jilted at the altar, sets about making a new life for herself. I think it is too long and wanders about a bit during the middle but, nevertheless, I could easily see it becoming one of my favourite comfort reads in years to come.  It is full of nice people and everyday intrigues, written in an effortlessly entertaining style, and all neatly tied up with the perfect happy ending.  And it contains the most winning piece of advice for a trouble soul I have ever come across:  “Read a nice book.  Read Emma.”

Top Books 2014 - 2

7. Drawn from Memory (1957) – E.H. Shepard
A very charming, very poignant childhood memoir from the beloved illustrator. The sequel, Drawn from Life, was also very good.  

6. To War with Whitaker (1994) – Hermione Ranfurly
A wartime memoir unlike any other I’ve read – and goodness knows I’ve read too many. Ranfurly’s wanderings during the Second World War as she was posted through the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe made for absolutely fascinating reading. They exposed me to a theatre of war I’ve read far too little about and focused on the sort of details I love best: fascinating people, major world events, and behind-the-scenes insights.

5. Mike and Psmith (1953) – P.G Wodehouse
I chose to start 2014 off in style, with the story in which P.G. Wodehouse introduced his finest creation, Psmith, to world. My great dilemma in life is whether I wish to be taken under the wing of a Psmith-like creature or to be Psmith-like myself. I struggle with this daily.

Top Books 2014 - 1

4. Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) – Angela Thirkell
Not Thirkell’s best Barsetshire novel but, nevertheless, one of my personal favourites as it follows my favourite Thirkell characters (read: Lydia) through the first months of the Second World War. Structurally it has some obvious flaws and its un-Thirkell-like jingoism is jarring but it has more than enough emotional heft to make up for these shortcomings. I am willing to forgive a lot – including Thirkell’s patriotic sentimentality – for the sheer joy expressed by Mrs. and Mr. Birkett in the opening pages as they prepare to offload their featherbrained daughter Rose.  A book that never disappoints no matter how many times I reread it.

3. A Long Way from Verona (1971) – Jane Gardam
Reading this back in January started off an obsession with Gardam. Though some of her other novels are equally excellent (God on the Rocks and Old Filth in particular), this was my first and remains my favourite. The story of a precocious school girl during the Second World War, it is inventive, terribly funny, and more than a little bit bizarre.  I adored it.

2. The Past is Myself (1968) – Christabel Bielenberg
Bielenberg’s chilling, thriller-like memoir of life in Germany during the Second World War.


1. The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope
The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.

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Cheerfulness Breaks InSometimes, there is no accounting for what makes a book a favourite.  I’ve read twenty-three of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books now and, without even having to think about it, I can list off which ones I think are her best.  That said, my personal favourite ranks nowhere near the top of that list.  While the rest of her war-time novels are uniformly strong, Cheerfulness Breaks In, which focuses on the first year of the war, is disjointed, clumsy and full of decidedly un-Thirkell-like jingoism.  Despite these flaws, I adore it and have reread it five times since first discovering Thirkell in 2011.

Cheerfulness Breaks In opens with the wedding of Rose Birkett, the feather-brained and oft-engaged daughter of the much beloved headmaster of Southbridge school.  Manhandled down the aisle by her family, friends, and fiancé, the Birketts are shamefully delighted to be free of their exhausting daughter.  But one trial is about to be exchanged for another: they may be free of Rose (safely on the other side of the Atlantic, stationed in South America with her naval husband) but the war has just started and Southbridge is to play host to the evacuated Hosier’s Boys Foundation School from London.

Nearby, Lydia Keith, now twenty one (by Thirkell’s bizarre counting, which has little to do with arithmetic as we know it), has harnessed her energy and forcefulness for good.  Though “her family had thought that when she left school she might wish to train for some sort of work in which swashbuckling is a desirable quality,” Lydia has instead chosen to stay at home, running the estate and caring for her invalid mother.  She is no less blunt and unromantic than before – “To all such young men as were prepared to accept her as an equal Lydia extended a crushing handshake and the privilege of listening to her views on all subjects” – but she has moved beyond her girlhood.  While her girlfriends have exchanged Barsetshire High School for nursing wards and her closest friend, Noel Merton, has left his lawyer’s chambers for a military career, Lydia is bossing about matrons at Red Cross sewing parties and dishing out rabbit stew to grubby evacuees.  It’s not a particularly romantic life but, nonetheless, Lydia is our heroine.  Since she has always been my personal heroine, ever since her first appearance as a gauche sixteen year old, it is not difficult then to understand why I love this book.

Both the residents of Southbridge and Lydia find their worldviews upset during the first few months of the war.  Lydia finds herself uncomfortably (and unknowingly for a long time)in love and in Southbridge the Birketts and their friends must adapt to the evacuees in their midst.  These dual storylines are not gracefully managed so it is difficult to review them in any cohesive way.  Lydia’s story is a quite straightforward romance, though she does spend quite a bit of time capably counselling her friends and helping them set their own romances straight.  The situation in Southbridge, however, is altogether more interesting…

At the beginning of the war, Laura Morland moves in with the Birketts for the duration, having let her house in High Rising to friends from London.  This brings her into contact with members of the school community (familiar from Summer Half) but also other, less familiar neighbours.  There are Miss Bent and Miss Hampton, Barsetshire’s most entertaining and alcoholic lesbian couple, and, with the arrival of Hosier’s Boys Foundation School, there are Mr. And Mrs. Bissell.  The principal of Hosier’s, at first Mr. Bissell and his wife seemed like everything the Birketts had feared: common and Communist, they are the antithesis of Conservative, middle-class Barsetshire.  But, rather to everyone’s delight, Southbridge discovers that it is more broadminded than previously suspected and the Bissells find that the middle classes aren’t as entirely useless as they’d expected them to be.  Also, the lubricating powers of alcohol in easing class tensions are appreciated by all.

One of the things I have always appreciated about Thirkell is her cross-generational approach.  While her romantic pairings are largely restricted to the young (or young-ish), Thirkell does not neglect her middle aged cast whose concerns are mainly for their children.  Understandably during a time of war.  The Archdeacon’s wife, remembering the last war, boils with anger when she thinks about how this war will disrupt the lives of young people, especially her daughter Octavia and her friends: “Would these girls care to marry?  How many would lose a lover, a friend that might have been a lover. ..Were Octavia, Delia, Lydia to go on being nice useful girls for ever?  She almost champed with rage at the thought.”  The girls see the war and their involvement in it as a great adventure, which it was.  However, it is their mothers who count the years in terms of what has been postponed or lost.  Laura Morland is cursed with a novelist’s imagination and, with four sons of military age, spends more time than she ought imagining dramatic and highly improbable deaths for them all after learning of major battles.  She keeps herself busy and fretful:

…visualising her explorer son transported by magic from a thousand miles in the interior of South America to the scene of the naval battle and there dying a hero’s death, her naval son who was on the China Station circling half the globe in a few days only to perish among shot and flame, her third son having unknown to her become a Secret Service Agent and arrived at Las Palmobas in time to foil an enemy plot at the expense of his life, not to speak of Tony, now well known to be with friends in Gloucestershire for part of the Christmas Vacation, having got into the Trans-Atlantic Air Services and so to Las Palombas and a heroic if unspecified end…

While passages like the above are entertaining, Thirkell is uncommonly sentimental in this book.  I can forgive a clumsy narrative but I can’t quite forgive her for momentarily falling under the spell of the famed stiff upper-lip.  It is very unlike her and does not sit quite right with those of us who love her for her sharp-tongued ways.  Part of the great joy of her wartime books is the callous way in which her characters moan and complain about the government, the refugees, and their fellow citizens.  The most damning criticism we hear in this book is of The Times for daring to rearrange its sections:

Mr Keith said he could bear anything, even the Income Tax, if only The Times would stop fiddling about with the Crossword Puzzle and put it in its proper place, down in the right-hand corner of page three or possibly page five.  And as for putting it in small print, he would take in the Daily Telegraph if it went on.  One must have something to cling to in this world of shifting values…

These details are what make Thirkell’s wartime books so good and yet there are far too few here.  Yes, we hear a little about shirkers who run away to America (excellent plan, FYI) and repulsive refugees and evacuees, but even they are dealt with gently by Thirkell, which is entirely out of character.

And still, despite its flaws, I love it.  I love all the drinks parties at Southbridge, I love Noel Merton’s inability to keep himself from getting promoted, and, most of all, I love everything related to the admirable Lydia.  It may not be Thirkell’s best but I love it.

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